The chances of La Salle pitching a nearly 11-minute first-half shutout last season were exactly zero. In Saturday afternoon's season opener at Tom Gola Arena, however, that is exactly what the Explorers did against St. Peter's, running off 17 straight points on the way to a 61-40 win.
St. Peter's actually led 16-13 and was shooting nearly 64 percent. Then, nothing — 0-for-11 from the field and seven turnovers on the way to 30-16, the game turned decisively with one sustained defensive effort.
"The defense was terrific,'' La Salle coach John Giannini. "Obviously, that was our offseason focus.''
During the second TV timeout, with 11:37 left in the first half, the players heard from their coach.
"Coach got on us in the timeout,'' La Salle senior B.J. Johnson said.
The defense went from straight up and no help to help and switching. That changed the game.
"Taking it personally on defense,'' Johnson said, when asked about the difference for him. "I know I can score. Everybody knows I can score. Defense has been drilled in our heads all fall.''
If you didn't know better, it could have been 30 years ago, with La Salle playing against a team it used to play twice a season when it was dominating the Metro Atlantic in the late 1980s and early 1990s with NBA players all over the roster, playing in a mid-major conference.
In fact, that was Lionel Simmons sitting in the first row across from the La Salle bench and Bobby Johnson, B.J.'s dad, sitting just behind the home bench. And Pennsbury High's Cameron Jones, son of Gary Jones who played for La Salle when the L-Train and Johnson arrived, came off the St. Peter's bench to hit three treys.
St. Peter's won 23 games last season and the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament, but it lost most of the firepower from that team. La Salle still has B.J. Johnson (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Pookie Powell (18 points). When asked about their games, the coach was succinct: "They better do that all year.''
All preseason, Giannini said how much he liked freshman big man Miles Brookins. Well, he hit the floor just before the big run and was a major factor in it. He did not miss a shot and had seven points, but was able to play just 15 minutes because of foul trouble.
"He's like a 30-year professional veteran player,'' Giannini said.